Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Many More Mormon Missionaries

One of the major highlights of the most recent General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the announcement by Church President Thomas S. Monson that the minimum age for full-time missionary service would, effective immediately, be lowered for young men from 19 years to 18 years, and from 21 years to 19 years for young women.

This is huge, to say the least, but now we have some numbers to illustrate just how huge these changes really are. In a recent statement, the Church announced that whereas prospective missionaries were beginning their applications at a rate of 700 per week, that number has now jumped to 4000 new applications begun per week. That's nearly six times the applications!

My own mission to the Samoan islands, partially described on this blog and my Samoan language blog, had a very profound impact on my life. I'm excited for the missionaries that are beginning their own service at this time, including, before too long, my sister-in-law, and eagerly await the reports of their success.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Historians' Fallacies

Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical ThoughtHistorians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most interesting books I've read. A must read, even for non-historians. Each time I (a scientist, not a historian) read Historians' Fallacies I'm reminded of ways I can think more clearly and research more rigorously.

Plus, Fischer takes what might have been a painfully dry, aggravatingly boring subject and with great examples and ample wit makes it both instructive and entertaining.

Despite some of the remarks in comments on respecting Fischer's supposed brutality toward his fellow historians, I find his generosity and willingness to acknowledge their important contributions most refreshing. A couple of quotations representing Fischer's generosity should suffice:

". . . [M]any a bad argument has been used in a good cause. It would be a very profound and pedantical mistake to presume that any of the fallacies in this book, if they appear in a historical interpretation, are prima-facie evidence that the interpretation is false in all respects, and utterly useless." (pg. 283)

"All examples of fallacies in this book are drawn from the work of competent historians. Some are drawn from the work of great historians. None, to my knowledge, were deliberately concocted to deceive a reader." (pg. 306)

To which we might add his comment from pg. 63, "The factual errors which academic historians make today [c. 1970] are rarely deliberate. The real danger is not that a scholar will delude his readers, but that he will delude himself," causing his interpretations, and his work, to suffer.

In today's ever more polarized world, wouldn't it be nice if critics, historians, politicians, and so forth could discern between bathwater and baby, as Fischer has, and exercise the wisdom (and humility) to throw out the one while retaining the other.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Why Calories Count

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (California Studies in Food and Culture, 33)Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics by Marion Nestle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here's the basic premise of this book: eating too many calories makes us fat; because of the "eat more" environment we can't keep ourselves from eating too many calories, thus we get fat; therefore, the government must step in to save us from ourselves.

If you don't mind big government or a nanny state, then this approach may work for you. I'm personally not a fan of it.

Reader beware. If you enjoy beautiful writing, this is not the book for you. The authors' tortuously plodding prose nearly drove me to the brink, and I have Master's degrees in both exercise physiology and nutritional sciences, giving me an inherent interest in the subject matter, perhaps the only reasons why I made it through.

Why Calories Count did have at least one redeeming feature: it's a short introduction to a ton of ideas that are rarely considered together, but should be, and, despite its failings, for this reason this book could be required reading at a very early point in all health-related majors. (I hesitate to say should because of the book's uninspired writing, which may inspire not a few students to change majors.)

Ok, maybe two redeeming features: another of its strengths is its inclusion of some of the historical developments in calorie science and, more broadly, nutritional science--heaven knows we need to know the history of any given field of study in order to progress. I've found that in the exercise and nutritional sciences (at least where I studied), the history has been largely left out, so it's been nice to read this and have small ah-ha! moments here and there as well-known concepts, till now largely adrift, suddenly found their historical moorings.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jury Duty

Fireworks display in Australia, not Honolulu, Hawaii.

I just missed getting selected for jury duty at the United States District Court here in Honolulu yesterday.

I made it to the last round where the attorneys eliminated all but the 12 jury members and two alternates on the basis of unstated, subjective criteria apparently vouchsafed in the law. Of all the parts of the selection process I witnessed, this was, by far, the most interesting--probably because it was the most mysterious.

So, sad to say, I won't get to be there for the rest of the trial, a quickie, by the sounds of it, involving a man accused of illegally importing illegal fireworks.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

That's FAIR

Every year the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research hosts a conference discussing some of the most controversial topics of Mormonism--the kind that reporters like to write about, yet rarely get very right--in a manner that confronts the issues head on but from faithful perspectives; that is, faithful both to scholarship and to the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which does not sponsor the event).

I don't live in Utah, where the conferences take place, so I eagerly await reading what I can as soon as it's published on the FAIR website. This year's postings have not disappointed.

For August 2nd, three papers are posted. The first, by Joshua Johansen, an active Mormon man with same-sex attraction who is happily married to a woman, discusses the idea that not all men with SSA want to be in a same-sex relationship precisely because they believe in the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Second is a paper by Neylan McBain on the issue of gender-based roles within the Church, especially within its so-called hierarchy, wherein she very expertly advises Mormons to stop trying to play the men and women's authority and callings within the Church are equal card, as it destroys our credibility with any who actually know something about the way things work in the Church. She suggests that we refrain from describing men and women's roles within the Church according to a secular paradigm of power and instead describe these roles according to a cooperative paradigm. She also gives a number of excellent suggestions on how women and girls can be better involved in all levels of service in the wards and stakes.

Third comes John Sorenson's fascinating account of the numerous connections between Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerican geography, culture, religion, and more. Professor Sorenson is the leading Mormon scholar in this field, so far as I am aware (read some of his publications here), who also recently rebutted a fellow (but non-Mormon) Mesoamericanist's attempted refutation of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

And for August 3rd, we have a very interesting piece by a non-Mormon on the similarities in the way believing Mormons, heterodox Mormons, and former Mormons discuss their conversion and de-conversion stories. That a non-Mormon would want to participate at the annual conference of Mormon apologetics is an indication of the ever-increasing importance of Mormon apologetics and scholarship in the minds of serious academics. Hugh Nibley, the god-father of modern Mormon scholarship (and Mormonism's preeminent apologist) would no doubt be happy at such a turn of events.

These, of course, aren't the only presentations that were made at the recent FAIR conference. Many others were made, but the text of the presentations haven't yet been posted. There are many wonderful papers from previous conferences, though, to tide you over in the meantime.

(Additional reports on the FAIR conference can be found here and here.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mormonism, Islam, and Christianity

I wanted to blog about Ms. Wood's "extraordinarily inept" article on Mormonism and Islam and their relationship to Christianity. But this guy beat me to it. And he did a much better job than I could have. A must read.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Abandonment of Mormon Faith Not Inevitable

At this time when some make it seem inevitable that young Mormons will eventually abandon their faith, as did this young couple, it's a good idea to either read or reread Davis Bitton's classic essay, "I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church," in which he explains, among other things,

The critics would have you believe that they are disinterested pursuers of the truth. There they were, minding their own business, going about their conscientious study of church history and—shock and dismay!—they came across this (whatever this is) that blew them away. As hurtful as it is for them, they can no longer believe in the church and, out of love for you, they now want to help you see the light of day.

Let's get one thing clear. There is nothing in church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the Latter-day Saint historians who know the most about our church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the church. More precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. In fact, with few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote.

If those who know the most about Church, or Mormon, history have not abandoned their faith upon discovering all the (supposedly) shocking things found therein, then I think that should give us nonspecialists pause before we abandon ship at the slightest adverse wind.

(Or, if you need a shorter read, check out the last three paragraphs in this post by Daniel C. Peterson.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

George Pratt, Samoan Language Champion

In my opinion the patron saint of the written Samoan language is the Reverend George Pratt, who lived in Samoa for 40 years as a missionary for the London Missionary Society.

Though other missionaries preceded him to the Samoan archipelago, including the venerable John Williams, it was Pratt who first documented the Samoan language.

His most enduring contributions to the language are his grammar and dictionary, which went through four editions, and the translation of the Holy Bible into Samoan.

In his day the Rev. Pratt stood "pre-eminent as a student and master of the Samoan language." (1) He

spoke it like one of the natives of a generation now passed away, before the language had suffered from modern corruptions. He was so familiar with the classic traditions of the people, and could illustrate and give points to his speech by such telling references and allusions, that it was always a treat to the natives to hear Palati speak. He had no uninterested hearers. (2)

Concerning his work on the Bible, one of his colleagues, the Rev. Samuel James Whitmee, eulogized Pratt with the following:

To him, more than to any other person, although several rendered efficient aid, the excellence of the Samoan version of the Scriptures is due. I think I may say he did more than all the rest put together. The translation, and then the revision of the Samoan Bible, was the great work of his life. To this he devoted almost daily attention for many years, with the result that the Samoans have a Bible which, as a classic, is, and will be to them, very much what the Authorized Version has been in England. (2)

I think it's safe to say that anyone who learns Samoan as a second language is indebted in some way to the Rev. George Pratt. That all Samoan-speaking Christians are indebted to him for the Samoan Bible goes without saying. His work will stand as an eternal memorial to his dedication to a noble cause.

1. George Cousins, The Story of the South Seas, London Missionary Society, 1894.

2. Richard Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society, 1795 - 1895, H. Frowde, 1899.

Samoa Depicted Authentically at the PCC

I've been asked whether the depiction of Samoan culture at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii, is authentic. I always say, yes, it is authentic.

I've also heard complaints at its inauthenticity, in that it glosses over many important features of life in Samoa or life as a Samoan. And I always acknowledge the truth of these complaints: not that it's inauthentic but that many important features of life in Samoa and life as a Samoan are not included in the center's depiction of Samoa and its people (the same goes for the other six cultures showcased).

Is this a contradiction? I don't think so.

The Polynesian Cultural Center is designed to present in a short time (admission is good for three days) only a small portion of what it's like to live in a few of the many Polynesian nations.

Do you think Polynesian Cultural Center would have attracted 32 million visitors since it opened in 1963 if its entertainers walked around wearing dark, drab costumes and long, sad faces complaining about how bad it is to live in Polynesia (and perhaps work at such a place)?

I don't think so.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy a classic show about (a portion) of the Faʻasamoa, the Samoan way of life, as presented by the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Family Key to Survival of Samoan Language

New Zealand's Minister of Education Hekia Parata says that the best institution for preserving the Samoan language is the family, not the government.

Sure, I'll be the first to admit that it excites me to see state schools offering Samoan as a class. But, really, can a few hours each week produce fluency and provide real context for what's being studied?

Not by a long shot. That's why I'd trade (almost) all the book learning in the world for a few more years in Samoa to really explore the language and its use in the most mundane settings to the deepest, most esoteric chiefly discourse.

A Second Immersion into Samoan

In my recent post on being immersed in the Samoan language as a missionary I didn't say anything about another important component of my language acquisition: book study.

I'm fairly bookish by nature, so studying from grammars or reading Samoan language materials came naturally.

When we entered the Missionary Training Center, each of us eight missionaries assigned to Samoa received the following language materials:

Samoan for Missionaries, which apparently was a Brigham Young University Master's thesis written by Scott C. Dunn, presumably a former missionary to Samoa (you have to wait a while for the book to load).

G. B. Milner's Samoan Dictionary, an excellent and compact work that I tried to carry with me as much as possible for quick reference.

And the scriptures, or Standard Works, as Mormons call them, including the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. (The former for sale here; the latter, as newly revised translations, here.)

When I had been in Samoa for a while, I purchased the Reverend George Pratt's dictionary and grammar (1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions online; I had the 4th), a copy of Gospel Principles in Samoan, and Allardice's Simplified Dictionary of Modern Samoan.

All these works I studied carefully, comparing grammar rules with actual Samoan usage in print and what I heard from day to day until, by the grace of God, I could follow, and contribute to, what was being said all around me.

If you're trying to learn Samoan, don't forget to combine the written and spoken word. That way you'll know what to say and why it's said that way.

Samoa in 1949

Here's a neat vignette of what Samoa was like back in 1949. It's only downside is that it's shown through the eyes and interpretation of their colonizers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

50 Years of Samoan Independence

Not only is this week International Samoan Language Week, but the independent nation of Samoa will be celebrating 50 years of independence from New Zealand on June 1st.

At least three world powers have had major influence in Samoan politics since Western contact in the 18th century, and it hasn't always been nice for the Samoans.

Early on in the Samoans' modern political history Americans, the English, and Germans have all vied for, and obtained, control over parts of the archipelago.

The 1899 Tripartite Convention partitioned the islands between Germany and the United States. Then, in 1914, at the outset of World War I, New Zealand troops responded to a request from the British government to occupy German Samoa. New Zealand kept control in one form or another until 1962, when it granted Samoa its independence.

The United States still administers American Samoa as an unincorporated territory.

Samoan Tsunami Recovery

Samoans everywhere, but especially in the islands, are not likely to forget the date of September 29th. That's because in the early morning of that date, 2009, a powerful earthquake sent a devastating tsunami to the south shores of the islands of ʻUpolu and Tutuila in Samoa and American Samoa, respectively, laying waste to almost everything in its path.

Governments, churches, and other non-profit organizations immediately responded by sending aid and long-term assistance to help both Samoas rebuild.

I haven't been back to the Samoan islands since finishing my mission in 2003, so I haven't seen any of the destruction or recovery first hand. So it's nice to read that things are getting back to normal.

Does anyone know of any continuing need for tsunami recovery assistance in Samoa?

Samoan Eats: The Real Deal

After a little searching around, I found a series of YouTube videos that teach how to make all kinds of Samoan food. Below is the video on how to cook three different kinds of kopai, thus fulfilling my outstanding promise to give more detailed instructions.

The video creator also blogs her recipes and bits about Samoan history.

Samoan Treats

As you celebrate with me this year's Samoan Language Week (May 27 - June 2), you will occasionally need to replenish your energy stores. Preferably with Samoan food, of course.

No doubt there are plenty of recipes online for many Samoan foods, but if you're looking for something sweet, look no further than the following posts:

Koko Rice, a delicious repast that goes especially well with well-buttered white bread.

Kopai Koko: Take One!, where I give very basic instructions for making dumplings in chocolate sauce. (This post used to be the number one link when you googled kopai. I was once famous.)

Banana Napalm, in which I give the harrowing account of personal injury incurred whilst preparing suafaʻi.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Language Mistakes = Laughter + Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Samoan as a language and culture is its many proverbs and sayings. They are most useful in oratory, but as a pālagi, or foreigner, I like to use them to teu le vā (if you don't know what that means, see my previous post) in a way that usually produces laughter.

Once I used a Samoan saying in a very funny way. I had found the following saying in my dictionary, which had been derived from Schultz's work on Samoan proverbial expressions.
E toa e [sic] le loto, ʻae pā le noʻo. The will is strong but the hips are broken (i.e., the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak).
It seemed innocuous enough, so I busted it out about 18 months into my mission. The only problem was that noʻo doesn't mean hips, it means bowels. And  doesn't mean broken, it means burst or exploded.

I was serving in American Samoa and had come down with something nasty that killed my appetite--a big problem when you're a missionary in Samoa. We stopped by one family's place and they had prepared the customary meal for us. I only ate a token amount.

The woman who retrieved my tray of food commented on how little I'd eaten. I tried smoothing over the insult with an apology, which translated as, "In truth the desire to eat a lot was there, but as the saying of old men goes, 'The will is strong, but the hips are broken.'"

My Samoan missionary companion burst into laughter. I was startled and asked him why. That made him laugh even harder because he realized that I'd made my mistake in complete innocence.

He asked me where I had heard that saying. I told him that I'd found it in my dictionary. He asked me if I knew what it meant. I answered in the affirmative, telling him what its figurative application was supposed to be.

He assured me that in that sense of it I wasn't wrong. It was the literal meaning that I hadn't understood. He asked me if I understood the word . Yes, I said. He asked if hips, as in hip bones, burst. I had to admit they don't. He then asked me if I knew what was located near the hips which could burst.

It took me a second to think his question through. Then, in a burst of inspiration, it dawned on me what I had said: "The will is strong, but my bowels have burst."

The thing about Samoans is that they have a splendid sense of humor; fortunately, one that can even accommodate a little inadvertent potty humor from an unsuspecting foreigner.

Subsequent to my slip up, my companion and I would retell the story to fits of laughter. Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Borge was both funny and wise.

So if you're learning a new language--and I hope it's Samoan--don't be afraid of making mistakes. They'll often be riotously funny, and by so doing, you'll likely get the help you need to not make it again, and you will have drawn closer to the people you're with.

In the News

So far, I haven't seen much made of Samoan Language Week in the news. A Google News search also reveals very little.

Is this because not much is being done? Or is what's being done not being covered?

Or is Samoan language week mostly happening on Facebook (here and here) and this blog?

Everybody go out and do something Samoan. Even if you just step outside and shout tālofa, hello, at the top of your lungs.

ʻO le Vāfealoaʻi

The theme for this year's Samoan Language Week is ʻO le Vāfealoaʻi--Strong and Respectful Relationships.

If you can read Samoan, hop over to my Samoan language blog, where I explain the concept of vāfealoaʻi.

For the rest of you, let me briefly explain in English. First, vāfealoaʻi is really a combination of the words , meaning an opening or space, and fealoaʻi, which is the reciprocal form of the root alo, or the front of one's body.

In other words, vāfealoaʻi refers to the space between two people who are facing each other, and just as we speak of close or distant relationships, the  or space between two people can be of variable physical and metaphorical distances.

One often hears in Samoan the phrase ʻia teu le vā, meaning, literally, take care of the space. A Samoan knows at any given time the exact dimensions of the  between him and the man or woman, boy or girl, facing him, and takes care that he doesn't neglect or go beyond the scope of it. He speaks in respectful terms and shows great hospitality to his elders, people of rank, and strangers, and speaks in more familiar terms with those he is familiar.

Every relationship is a vāfealoaʻi that needs cultivation. I've learned a lot from the Samoans in the past 11 years that has strengthened my relationships to my parents, siblings, wife and son, friends and strangers, and God.

In what ways can you cultivate strong and respectful relationships this week?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

There's a saying in Samoan, ʻo le ala i le pule le tautua--the way to authority is service. Samoans serve their family, their village, and their nation in any way necessary as a means to increase family, and, therefore, individual, influence or authority. Tautua never goes unnoticed, it brings honor and prestige to oneself and one's family. The greatest tautua one can give is the tautua toto, literally blood service--the kind that often ends in death.

Samoans are disproportionately represented in the United States military, serving to maintain the freedoms we enjoy. For instance, more American Samoans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq on a per capita basis than residents from any other state or territory in the union.

So if you know a Samoan serving in the military, thank him or her for his or her tautua toto. And don't forget on this Memorial Day that freedom never was free.


The first little bit of any full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent at one of the 15 missionary training centers (MTC) located throughout the world.

I spent two months at the MTC in the Provo, Utah, in part to receive language training in Samoan with seven fellow missionaries. Afterwards, we were shipped out to Samoa, where we spent the next 22-23 months immersed in Samoan language and culture . . . and food.

When we arrived at the islands, we were paired off with more seasoned missionaries and assigned to labor in different areas in Samoa and American Samoa. Every once in a while our assigned areas or companions or both would change.

Of the 18 companions I had on the mission, 14, or 78%, were Samoan (one of whom was New Zealand born and raised), accounting for 70% of my two years. Seventy-one percent of my time on the islands I spent in Samoa versus American Samoa, with 81% of my time in Samoa spent on ʻUpolu versus Savaiʻi.

In all, I served in 24 ecclesiastical units or congregations, including 18 wards and 6 branches. One ward was an English language ward, but the other 23 units were all Samoan language units.

What this amounted to was a lot of Samoan language, day in and day out, in my on-duty time and in my spare time. Though I experienced language frustrations and culture shock at times, I can't think of a better way to learn a language than total immersion.

I will always be grateful to my Samoan companions who taught me their language and culture. And I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my American companions who also taught me a lot about the language--often it was extremely helpful to hear a grammar concept explained in plain English by one who had felt what I was feeling as a second language learner.

Today I don't have the luxury of total immersion in Samoan, though living and going to school in Hawaii these past three years certainly have helped my language development. I'll explain more in future posts.

My Samoan Language Journey

My own journey in the Samoan language began as a freshman in college at a BYU football game back in 2000, LaVell Edwards's final season, for those who care.

As the game progressed, I kept hearing the announcer saying things like, "Setema Gali on the tackle," pronouncing the g in Gali as an n. I could see the spelling for Gali on the jumbotron, and, confused at the illogical pronunciation, asked my rabid-BYU-football-fan-of-a-roommate why. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I dunno. It must be a Samoan thing." To which I replied, "Well, that's dumb!"

Weeks later, I received my call to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Samoan islands, speaking, of course, Samoan, where I would learn that a g is pronounced as ng, and get to meet some of the said Gali's uncles.

I soon repented of calling Samoan orthography and phonology dumb (the announcer, bless his ignorant white heart, was mispronouncing Gali's name). They make much more sense than their English counterparts, since words in Samoan, with very few exceptions, are pronounced just as they're written.

So help stamp out mispronunciation of Samoan names and join the approximately 370,000 Samoan speakers worldwide in celebrating International Samoan Language Week or Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa, if for no other reason than Samoan is probably the fastest growing language in American football.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

International Samoan Language Week

Samoan Language Week.jpg

It's been a quick 11 years since I began studying Samoan. It's good to see the language getting international recognition.

More to follow.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bishop's Garden in Samoa

While watching the World Report of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in conjunction with its annual General Conference, I was excited to see a report of a special program taking place in Samoa focusing on teaching gardening skills to local Samoans to improve their health and self-reliance.

The program, centered in the tiny village of Sauniatu, is meant to reestablish traditions of good nutrition and health among Samoans, which traditions led early missionaries and explorers to comment on the physical superiority of Samoan men and women.

Since Western contact, the Samoans have increasingly relied on imported foods, leading to some of the world's highest rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases. It is my belief, and has been a major focus of my academics over the past three years, that a return to the traditional lifestyle of Samoan food and physical activity will reverse these destructive health trends. I'm glad to see that the Church I belong to is establishing itself as a community leader in the efforts to promote the health and welfare of the Samoan people.